Helping Parents Help Their Children to Discover Nature

David W. Mogk
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published Sep 15, 2009 1:13pm

I was on a trail run last week up to Sacagawea Peak, a popular hiking destination in the northern Bridger Range. I stopped to admire a herd of mountain goats when I encountered a young family on the trail. The boy, perhaps age 9, was just bubbling with excitement. His pockets were bulging and his hands were full of prized rock samples. He had found a treasure trove of fossils. I introduced myself as a geologist and asked if I could see his samples. We sorted through his treasures, and I helped identify brachiopods, rugose corals, a few fragments of some colonial "brain" corals, and some crinoid fragments (no calyxes today, but they can be found). (And yes, even though I'm a metamorphic petrologist I can still fully appreciate the diversity and beauty of these fossil assemblages). The crest of the Bridger Range is capped by the Mississippian Madison Limestone, and many horizons are extremely rich in these fossil beds. I pointed out that on their next visit if they go just over the pass they will find a layer of columnar structures that are known as "bioherms" and these were deposited by layering of algal mats formed along the margin of a shallow, warm sea. I also directed their attention to the cliffs above us that have been tilted to a near-vertical orientation and folded in an intricate pattern. They thanked me for this information and we went on our way.

Reflecting farther up the trail, the most interesting part of this chance encounter was my conversation with the parents. They were proud about their child's enthusiasm about Nature, but at the same time they were somewhat exasperated not knowing how to support his interests. The whole family clearly enjoyed getting out for a day's outing, but the parents clearly did not have the tools to help explain the Natural history of the area to their son. Remembering my own upbringing, I also had parents who got me out of the suburbs and into the country for hiking, berry-picking, animal-watching. And I also was the kid collecting stones in his pockets, but growing up in Michigan it was collecting "Petoskey Stones" (a Devonian tabulate coral, Hexagonaria percarinata) on vacation on the Lake Michigan shoreline, or getting a rock tumbler for my birthday and polishing whatever agates I could find. In later years, as a parent I took my own children at about the same age on annual "fossil hikes" in the spring after many fossils had weathered out from the annual freeze-thaw cycle on this very same trail, or a similar trail farther south on Storm Castle Mountain (also in the Madison Limestone). My children and their friends would go on a scavenger hunt (like an Easter egg hunt) filling their sample bags with the biggest, best-preserved, or most diverse collections of fossils for the day. In the case of my new family of friends, their experience was entirely by chance; in my own case, I had the advantage of planning a day trip to locations where I knew that fossils could be found (although you have to work a bit to get there, and then to find them). There's a lot to be said for the serendipity of new discovery, but only if minds are prepared to appreciate what's there, knowing what to observe, and how to interpret.

In the midst of the numerous programs to help improve (geo)science education in this country, I wonder if we've missed a large, untapped resource: parents. What are we doing (programmatically or individually) to help parents help their children gain an appreciation and understanding of Nature ? There are many great science programs for children of all ages, and many parents do indeed take advantage of these opportunities for their children. But in a way, that's passing the buck. Good intentions may not be enough. It's time to help get parents directly involved with learning about Nature. It seems to me that we need to cultivate a genuine enthusiasm for Nature among parents, to make it easy and desirable for parents to get their families out, and to provide easy access to information that will help them become informed and excited about learning about Nature (e.g. guides to easy hikes, collecting locations, etc. with related interpretative information that provides context, fundamental concepts, suggestions about activities to do while on site or as follow-up activities). We need resources that will help families, parents and children, want to get out in Nature, to develop an innate curiosity about the world around them, and to give them the tools to find the answers they need--in short, to become life-long learners along with their children.

So, here's a question (and perhaps a challenge): What have you done recently to encourage and help parents learn about (appreciate, participate, inquire, observe, interpret) Nature with their children?

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